HC Deb 05 December 1977 vol 940 cc1014-24
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on the situation in Bermuda.

The House will be aware of the decision to send British troops to Bermuda following serious disturbances there. On 2nd December two Bermudians, Erskine Burrows and Larry Winfield Tacklyn, were executed in Bermuda. Burrows had been sentenced to death on 6th July 1976, having been found guilty of murdering Police Commissioner Duckett in December 1972 and the Governor, Sir Richard Sharples, and his ADC, Captain Sawyers, in March 1973. Tacklyn was tried separately on these three charges but acquitted. In November 1976 both Burrows and Tacklyn were found guilty of murdering two supermarket managers in April 1973.

Tacklyn appealed against the verdict to the Burmuda Court of Appeal. The court rejected his appeal in April 1977. Following this rejection, the Bermuda Prerogative of Mercy Committee advised that neither Burrows nor Tacklyn should be reprieved and the then Acting Governor decided to accept the Committee's advice. An application to the Privy Council for special leave to appeal was dismissed on 6th October.

Meanwhile a petition for clemency to Her Majesty on behalf of both men, signed by approximately 6,000 Bermudians, had been received. I referred the matter to the new Governor, who carefully considered the matters raised in the petition. The Prerogative of Mercy Committee again advised against a reprieve and he decided that there were no grounds for changing the decision of the Acting Governor.

In 1947 the then Colonial Secretary, Mr. Arthur Creech Jones, announced to this House the policy which has been followed ever since. In accordance with that policy, having satisfied myself that there were no grounds for believing that there had been a miscarriage of justice, I had no alternative but to advise Her Majesty not to intervene. An announcement was made to this effect on 25th November and the date of the executions was set for 2nd December.

The Governor, who is responsible to the British Government for Bermuda's internal security, consulted the Premier and Bermuda Ministers, who are responsible for all other aspects of internal affairs, on whether a stay of execution should be granted because of possible reactions to the executions. They advised the Governor that racial harmony, respect for law and order, and the security situation, would suffer more if a stay of execution were granted.

On the night before the executions a demonstration occurred outside the Supreme Court building, which had to be broken up by police using tear gas. A number of buildings were burnt, possibly through arson, including a hotel in which, I deeply regret to say, three people died. The Governor announced on 2nd December a state of emergency and dusk-to-dawn curfew. Although the announcement of these measures initially had some calming effect, groups of youths caused extensive damage to property by using home-made fire bombs and other missiles, some of which were thrown at firemen, who therefore also needed police protection. There was, however, no serious personal injury.

On 3rd December the entire police force had to be called out to deal with a group of about 500 youths who had assembled with the apparent intention of mounting further attacks on property. The Governor considered that the police and the Bermuda Regiment would not be able to hold the situation for much longer and he asked that reinforcements be sent from Britain. In order to meet this request as rapidly as possible—and I am very grateful to the Armed Forces for their quick and efficient response—a small contingent from the Belize garrison was despatched to Bermuda yesterday. They have been joined by a company of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers from the Spearhead Battalion, based in Britain. They are available to supplement the local security forces if the Governor thinks it necessary.

The Governor, the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition have appealed to the people of Bermuda for calm and for the restoration of peace and harmony. I hope the appeal and the measures we have taken will have that effect.

Mr. John Davies

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and say that I agree entirely with him, as we all do here, about his hopes, which join those of the Governor, for the restoration of peace and harmony in Bermuda? It is an area which I think the Foreign Secretary will agree has not been the scene of racial disharmony in recent years—quite the contrary.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the offences in question were of an exceptional nature and that capital crimes of this kind have not occurred in Bermuda for many years?

Thirdly, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether it is his opinion that the degree of trouble on the island has in some sense been sparked by the independence issue, and will he confirm that the degree of self-government of Bermuda is extensive and that the passage to independence is a matter which lies wholly within the wishes of that island?

Dr. Owen

I hope that the racial harmony that has been established since 1968 will be maintained. I have no reason to believe that it cannot now be restored and I certainly hope that it will.

As regards the nature of the offences, I do not think that it is for me to comment. I have given the facts to the House and it is for the House to form its judgment. In Bermuda between 1958 and 1977, seven cases have been reprieved. This seems to have been the precedent. The circumstances of the last case were, to say the least, unusual.

As to the question of independence, it is true that Bermuda has already been given a great degree of self-government and that in recent months I have taken decisions to give an even greater degree of self-government. A Green Paper has been prepared for discussion on the issue of independence and I gather that the Government intend to publish a White Paper on the issue, having considered the matter. It will be for the people of Bermuda themselves to decide their path towards independence.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those of us who sat in this House with the late Richard Sharples will feel deeply and emotionally involved with at least one of the incidents in question here? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that this House, after a very long discussion and debate, decided to abolish capital punishment in this country? Whilst we are still responsible for five and possibly six dependent territories, is it not right, as a matter of general application, that the criminal code and penalties which are inflicted in those areas should correspond to the views of this House?

Dr. Owen

This is a matter which this House may well wish to debate. I share the views of the right hon. Gentleman; I am personally a convinced abolitionist. But it has been the policy since 1947 that the Governor and his advisers, including his own Prerogative of Mercy Committee, were in a better position than anyone else to take into account all relevant circumstances, including the extent of local feeling about an individual case and about capital punishment in general.

If the matter were to be brought back to this House and to the discretion of the Secretary of State, I took the view, when I looked at this matter, that it would have to be a decision taken by this House on a free vote. The alternative is for legislation covering all the dependent overseas territories, or for the overseas territories themselves to make a change. The Government in 1965 and in 1970 asked the dependent overseas territories, in view of the decision taken by this House, whether they would wish to remove the death penalty. A number of them did. Some overseas territories decided not to do so. Bermuda had a free vote on this issue in its own Parliament in 1975.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Is it not an appalling and intolerable irony that last week the British Government felt unable to stop the hangings and yet this week have to be prepared to come to the rescue of the Bermudan authorities in dealing with the consequences of their action? Will my right hon. Friend con sider very carefully the proposition that it is wrong to have responsibility without authority and that any British dependency, so long as that remains its status, should not have the power to put to death any of its citizens, particularly whilst that is not the law in this country? Will my right hon. Friend speed up the revision of the constitution to achieve a full democracy and a genuine majority Government, because many of us believe that had that existed these executions would not have taken place?

Dr. Owen

On the constitutional question, it is for the people of Bermuda to decide whether they are to go for independence. The Government's view is clear. We are only too happy for all dependent overseas territories to have full independence. We have proceeded on a policy of decolonisation and have wished it well.

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend on the issue that he raised. But it is a difficult question of balance, and I think that the House will wish to reflect on the underlying issue whether we wish to take away from the Governor, the Government and the Prerogative of Mercy Committee that degree of decision-making which they currently have and pull it into Westminster. In some senses, in view of the circumstances that followed, there are understandable arguments for so doing. But they are conflicting arguments, and I personally think that the best way is for the dependent overseas territories to reflect again on the decision that was taken in this House and to ask themselves whether it would not be better for them voluntarily to change their legislation to bring it into line with the legislation of this House.

Mr. Mates

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that many of us are increasingly proud that the Armed Forces have yet again—hard-pressed as they are—come to the rescue of the Government in a time of crisis? Is he further aware that the company of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has just come from fire-fighting duties, before that had just come from service in Northern Ireland, and once again is ready, at a moment's notice, to serve the Government? Now that the Foreign Secretary has had practical experience of pressing the button and getting what he wanted, will he now start to fight within the Cabinet to see that the situation that has arisen over the Armed Forces and their pay is put right, so that they are no longer at the beck and call of everyone at intolerable rates of pay compared with their fellow men?

Dr. Owen

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I need no encouragement. Members of the Armed Forces are a major force in my own constituency. I was Minister with responsibility for the Royal Navy for two years, and I have never had any doubt—indeed, no hon. Member on either side of the House has had any doubt—of the loyalty and dedication to duty of the Armed Services. No member of the present Government or Cabinet needs any lecture on that. We are deeply grateful to the Armed Forces for the way in which they respond to the demands that are made upon them, in this country and elsewhere. The whole House will wish to pay tribute to that ability to respond, within a few hours, to the situation in Bermuda.

Mr. Newens

Does my right hon. Friend recall that last week a number of my hon. Friends and I sent him a letter appealing for clemency and forecasting that bitterness and racial trouble would follow the carrying out of the first executions on the island for 30 years? Does he now accept that the advice that he was given that the racial trouble would not be as bad as in fact it has been was incorrect? Does he not now regard it as a matter of priority to reconsider the Creech Jones formula and perhaps to repudiate it? Under that formula, we have no right to intervene in matters of this kind but, ultimately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) said, we have the responsibility for clearing up the mess and facing the deaths of innocent people that are caused by this kind of action?

Dr. Owen

I feel that my hon. Friend, whose sincerity and depth of feeling on this issue I certainly respect and whose feelings on the substantive issue I share, was right to draw attention to this case on all its parameters. Tragically, some of the predictions that he made have been substantiated, and one has to reflect upon that fact. But I also think that, before the House makes a decision to change a policy that has been followed since 1947, we would all be wise to reflect on the underlying issues and to take a judgment at a time when passions are less engaged and when we have been able to see the balance of judgment.

I have said that I am prepared to look at the whole question, and not merely the application of the Creech Jones formula. Merely to revoke the Creech Jones formula would give some freedom to the Secretary of State, but it would still not allow him to implement, as an act of policy, total abolition. He would be able to consider all the circumstances and would have a greater degree of discretion than at present, which is circumscribed to a miscarriage of justice, but if the issue of abolition is to be discussed, that can be dealt with only by legislation.

Mr. Goodhew

In his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), the right hon. Gentleman said that since taking office he had taken certain measures to extend the degree of self-government in Bermuda. Will he tell the House what those measures are?

Dr. Owen

It was in relation to the police. The Premier of Bermuda came to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is most closely involved with this matter. I saw him myself. He wished to have a greater degree of autonomy in this respect, and I agreed that this should be done, following the advice of the Governor. The Governor himself has made it very clear that he wishes to see the maximum degree of autonomy given to the Bermudan Government. I believe that in these trying and difficult circumstances the Governor deserves our support. The situation is very difficult.

Mr. English

It is all very well for my right hon. Friend to talk about the Creech Jones formula, but the Creech Jones formula implies that the law, in this case the law of Bermuda, was approved by a democratic Assembly. Is it not the case that this is an Assembly of which four Members are elected by 400 people in a prosperous part and four Members are elected by 2,000 people in a less prosperous part? My right hon. Friend should perhaps not look at the emanations of this undemocratic Assembly, however serious—as in this case—they may be, but should take his responsibilities for ensuring that all Assemblies in our Colonial or Commonwealth territories are democratic.

Dr. Owen

I am perfectly prepared to look at this matter, but I do not think that democracy in Bermuda can be criticised as strongly as it has been by my hon. Friend. Regarding the racial composition of the Bermudan Government and Legislature, the Cabinet has five black and six white Members, the House of Assembly 22 black and 18 white Members and the Legislative Council seven black and four white Members. The imbalance is not as great as some reporting has implied.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call all five hon. Members seeking to catch my eye, if they undertake to be brief.

Mr. Benyon

Was it not evident at least two weeks ago that these troubles would occur? Why were the troops not sent earlier?

Dr. Owen

It was not evident. The advice of the Governor was acted on and he, acting on the advice of the Premier and the Government, felt that the reaction was not likely to be as severe as in fact it was. With the benefit of hindsight, that is proven to be incorrect. It was felt that there would be some reaction, but not that it would be as strong as it has been.

Miss Richardson

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in previous cases where a reprieve has been granted the accused have been white? Does he not think that if these men had been white they might have been reprieved by their own Government? Does he not now accept that because of the decision of the Bermudan Government and our decision not to intervene, further lives may now be in danger?

Dr. Owen

I should need to be certain before I replied to that question, but I am not aware that the seven reprieves that I mentioned, and previous reprieves, have all been granted to white people.

We should be wrong to concentrate only on the racial issues in this case. There is a very much more fundamental issue here, which lies at the root of debates which have racked this House over many decades. It is the whole question of the death penalty, whether it is right that the death penalty should exist, and whether it is tolerable that the death penalty should be abolished in our own country and still be retained in dependent overseas territories. That is a substantial issue of principle on which I think the House will want to reflect and which has caused me some anxiety over the last few months.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of us on the Opposition Benches fully support the actions and decisions not only of the Governor and the Prerogative of Mercy Committee but also of the Secretary of State's Department? Will he assure the House that the matter of capital punishment should be left to the people of Bermuda when they have achieved independence, as he has indicated to the House that they will shortly achieve independence?

Dr. Owen

They have made no such decision definitely to go for independence. Indeed, there is quite a difference of opinion in Bermuda about whether they do or do not go for independence. I can give no such assurance because, as I have indicated, I think that this is an issue upon which the House may well wish to reflect.

It would not have been right for me to abrogate the Creech Jones formula as an executive act. I felt that this matter would have to come to this House, and I think that the House will have to decide this in an atmosphere away from a particular case and on the underlying issue of principle. This may well have to be grappled with, because some of the dependent overseas territories could well not become independent for many years, and we may continue to face this sort of dilemma.

Mr. Pavitt

In view of the importance of the advice received from the Governor, does my right hon. Friend recall that when the Governor who was in office until quite recently, Sir Ted Leather, was a Member of this House he voted for the abolition of capital punishment? Had he still been in office, the advice might have been slanted in a different way. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the Opposition should be fully consulted as well as the Prime Minister? In the event of the independence of Bermuda or any other territory being considered, the question of capital punishment should be one of the factors considered by the Government.

Dr. Owen

I have indicated to the House that the House as a whole, as well as the Government, may wish to look at the underlying issues. As to the individual decision that any Governor would take, we have to recognise that the Governor is not a totally free agent on these issues. He has to take into account the feeling and the advice of the particular overseas territory which he is administering at the time. One can look into the voting record on a number of issues, but it is when he is confronted with an individual case that a Governor has to face these agonising decisions. They were faced in the past, when the death penalty existed in this country, by Home Secretaries and caused considerable anguish to them.

Mr. Moate

Does the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary agree that when there is a question of the exercise or non-exercise of our residual functions it is vital to have the constitutional position absolutely clear? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are those in Bermuda now who in these disturbances are seeking to ascribe the responsibility to the decision of Her Majesty's Government and, indeed, to the right hon. Gentleman, who felt unable to advise the Queen to exercise the Prerogative of Mercy? Could the right hon. Gentleman make doubly clear that that decision flowed from the laws of Bermuda itself, and that it was a Bermudan decision rather than a decision taken here in the United Kingdom?

Dr. Owen

I have indicated that the matter rests on the policy which was followed by the Colonial Secretary in 1947 and has been followed by his successors ever since. It is well known in Bermuda that it has its own Legislature, its own judicial advisory system, a Prerogative of Mercy Committee and a Governor. It recognises that the Secretary of State can intervene if he believes that there has been a miscarriage of justice but that otherwise he is bound to advise the Queen not to exercise the Royal Prerogative. It is a complicated issue. All of us have various levels of responsibility in this cycle of events. None of us can escape them, and I have no wish to escape my responsibility to the House.

Mr. Bidwell

I recognise the difficulty and dilemma in which my right hon. Friend was inevitably placed on this occasion, but did his office have in mind what occurred in the Desmond Trotter case, where a reprieve was granted as a result of a great deal of international pressure and interest—including mine, when I went to see my hon. Friend the Minister of State? The issue was raised at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting last Thursday. Was the result of that conveyed to my right hon. Friend? Did it make any difference to him or did he make any overture whatsoever to indicate British apprehension on this matter?

Dr. Owen

I thought that it was right that the Governor should receive up-to-date accounts of the various comments made and opinions expressed in this country up to the time of the execution. Copies of newspaper articles and summaries were relayed to him, as, indeed, were the decision and feeling of the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. I think that it was perfectly reasonable that he should have had that as part of the background against which he had to make these extremely difficult decisions. I gather that the case to which my hon. Friend referred was not in an associated territory, and the constitutional position is different.

I can now confirm that black Bermudans have been reprieved in the past. Therefore, it has not been a question of only whites being reprieved.

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